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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring:
Jane Novak

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1917 Kromo Gravure "No Border" Jane Novak Card1923 Neilson's Chocolates Jane Novak CardMaking 86 films throughout the course of her career, Jane Novak reached her pinnacle of fame in the 1910’s and, like the Talmadge and Gish sisters, belonged to a family of acting siblings. Sister Eva, though, who was younger than Jane, never quite made it as big as her sister, who was in the paradoxical situation of being loved for her delicate, vulnerable blonde good looks as well as her image as an athletic, outdoorsy type. An actress for all seasons?

According to legend, it all started for Jane when a filmmaker caught a glimpse of a photo of Jane as a teenager on Anne Schafer’s makeup table. Anne Schafer, or Seymour according to varying sources, was Jane’s aunt by marriage, and a star of silent screen in her own right. Whether or not this is how Jane was discovered, it certainly couldn’t have hurt to already have a step in the doors to the business, and Jane was determined to take many more.

The almost 5”7 actress – making her quite tall among her contemporaries – was born on January 12, 1896 in St. Louis, Missouri, and records show that her first one-reeler film was made in 1913 (with her aunt), when Jane was 17 years old: the poetically-titled At the Sign of the Lost Angel. Upon being discovered, she signed a contract with the Kalem Company, who sought her out and wanted her on board because they claimed she resembled actress Alice Joyce, the difference being their hair colors. They must have figured that what worked once would work again, and in this case, they were right. Alice Joyce, a star worthy of biography herself, was known as “The Madonna of the Silver Screen” and enjoyed a long career, playing some stellar older women roles, such as Clara Bow’s mother in her most famous film, Dancing Mothers (1926) – she was only 36 at the time!

Although only six years younger than Alice (according to the records, at least), Jane was among a slate of new actress hired as the new generation of the still new moving pictures industry. Jane was young and had a vital energy to her, and wanted to get ahead fast. Again, mixed reports come into play here; though she allegedly had a $10 dollar per week contract with Kalem, Vitagraph and Selig seem to be the companies behind her first known films, and it is indeed known that she quickly signed with Vitagraph – by 1914 – which was better known and more prosperous.

Selig, too, was good to her in terms of starting off a career for Jane that would have her co-star with many of the biggest names in the industry through the silent period; in 1914, she made Willie’s Haircut with Harold Lloyd, one of the comic geniuses of the period who has recently been given the attention he deserves alongside Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. She continued to work with Harold Lloyd, making films like Just Nuts in 1915, her energy and physicality making her a perfect foil for him. While still at Vitagraph, her reputation was growing, she was given a 1923 MPDA Jane Novak Printraise, and co-starred with the likes of Jack Mower, William Duncan and Myrtle Gonzales, star of the Westerns at the time. In fact, Jane would become very popular for her roles in Westerns, and was often cast in a variation, the Northwestern melodrama.

It must have been such an exciting time, when all the names we know so well todayHarold Lloyd Still Photo were struggling actors, directors and producers in an entertainment sector with a dubious future. Today it sounds so glamorous that this young starlet worked with Harold Lloyd and then-novice producer Hal Roach, not to mention another cowboy hero, Roy Stewart. But this was only the beginning, with such films as The Kiss of Dishonor, The White Scar, Graft, Tainted Money (1915); The Target (1916); and Eyes of the World, The Spirit of ’76 and The Innocent Sinner (1917). Though certainly prolific, Jane in fact made only two films in 1916, and three in 1917, which is not that many considering how many short films were churned out weekly at the time.

1918, though, was a big year for Jane. Her first film of the year was also her first of many with Western legend William S. Hart, who directed and starred with her in The Tiger Man (its working title was Bad Burr Banister, to give a sense of the Western theme), in which outlaw Hawk Parsons escapes from jail and encounters the wife of a preacher (Jane) who tries to commit suicide rather than run away with the man who has fallen in lust with her. With this film, Jane’s stardom skyrocketed, and she made four more Westerns with William: Selfish Yates (1918), The Money Corral (1919), Wagon Tracks (1919 – William didn’t direct this one), and Three Word Brand (1921, also not directed by Jane’s co-star).

She made many other films during this period, including Treat ‘Em Rough and The Coming of the Law (1919, co-starring Tom Mix); Behind the Door (1919, a World War I influenced film that survives today in two rare prints); The River’s End (1920, set in Canada’s Northwest); The Great Accident (1920, co-starring Tom Moore); The Trail’s End (1920, also known as Isobel, Jane’s character’s name); and The Barbarian (1920, co-starring Monroe Salisbury. In addition to The Trail’s End, she made a few more films as the headline star (relatively unusual in a time when the men were often the headline star) in independent productions set in Alaska or Canada: The Snowshoe Trail (1922) and The Lure of the Wild (1925) are examples. Around this time in the early 1920s, Jane divorced her husband, actor Frank Newburg, and rumors flew that she and 1917 Kromo Gravure Jane Novak CardWilliam S. Hart were together, but Hart actually married another of his leading ladies at the time, Winifred Westover. It was then that Jane and William also stopped collaborating professionally.

This didn’t deter Jane from pursuing her career and fame with zeal. 1922 was another benchmark year: she made Thelma, starring as a Norwegian peasant who falls in love with a British aristocrat (some plot arcs are timeless!), and got rave reviews, as she did for The Lullaby (1925), in which she played a wrongly convicted young woman who has her child taken away from her. Clearly she excelled in the straight melodrama as she did in the Western variation.

As many other actors did at the time, Jane headed not only to Canada to make films, but to the UK, where she made three films in 1925. She starred in Die Prinzessin und der Geiger (The Blackguard), which is also distinguished for having been written (adapted from the novel) by a very young and as yet unknown Alfred Hitchcock; Jane and Alfred became lifelong friends after her stay in England. She in fact had a very small role in Hitchcock’s second film made in Hollywood, Foreign Correspondent (1940), but by then she all but left the business.

Jane’s career essentially ended, as did most of her time, when sound arrived in 1929. Her last film of the silent era saw her returning to director Victor Schertzinger (with whom she made many Westerns), for Redskin, co-starring Richard Dix. Again like her peers, she was offered many bit parts during the 1930s, a strange time in that sound ushered in a whole new set of stars to a generation of audiences who still remembered their silent favorites well. Jane appeared in this capacity in films like Hollywood Boulevard (1936), Holiday Inn (1942, starring Fred Astaire), Desert Fury (1947, with Burt Lancaster), Paid in Full (1950), Scared Stiff (1953, starring Dean Martin), and About Mrs. Leslie (1954).

But Jane was mainly focused on living a private life and raising her daughter. And it was a long life, primarily set in the desert that would become the lush and prosperous industry town known as Hollywood. A year after being interviewed for the documentary Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius, she died in 1990, of a stroke at the Motion Picture Country Hospital in Woodland Hills, California.
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Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in each issue of The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter. Tammy invites you to write her at stonetamar@hotmail.com with any questions or comments on her column.